I shared a meme recently on Facebook to a page dedicated to discussion about house churches. It’s a site with lively discussion on issues broader than church and religion, but usually, the Christian faith comes through. I have no idea who originally made the statement, but the meme reads: “Deconstruction is the revival that evangelicals have been praying for. They just don’t have the eyes to see it.”
After receiving a few quick “likes,” the mood changed. I was attacked for posting “a bunch of Marxist-flavored, destructive, empty, human speculation … The blind leading the blind … Revival?! Not.”
Anyone who follows me on Facebook is well aware that confrontation is not an unusual experience for me. Normally I like confrontation because it can be an opportunity for discussion if the other person is willing. It was not surprising that the concept of deconstruction elicited a negative response. I am still trying to draw the guy into a productive conversation, but he’s having a hard time with that.
Since my house church Facebook friend is unwilling to have that discussion, perhaps we can have it here. For a conversation to be productive, it’s imperative we begin with a definition of what we’re discussing. What do I mean by “deconstruction?”
What is ‘deconstruction’?
Deconstruction has become a popular concept among many Christians, especially Millennials. That makes it somewhat ironic that the man who has most popularized the concept, Richard Rohr, is in his 70s. If you have attended seminary, you have heard of textual criticism and how it led to questioning the biblical text. The purpose was to take apart the text to get to the real meaning of the words.
“Deconstruction has become a popular concept among many Christians, especially Millennials. That makes it somewhat ironic that the man who has most popularized the concept, Richard Rohr, is in his 70s.”
Apply that same approach to the Christian faith. Deconstruction means to take apart a tradition, belief or practice for the purpose of understanding reality. Noted author Rachel Held Evans described it as a “massive inventory of faith, tearing every doctrine from the cupboard and turning each one over in your hand.”
Do you ever watch the home renovation shows on HGTV? They find an old house that is in disrepair and fix it up. It begins by removing all the obviously broken and unnecessary parts of the house. For some houses, changes are minimal. For others, it makes you wonder why they didn’t just level the building and start over. The contractor goes through the house meticulously, deciding what to keep and what to toss in the portable dumpster parked in the front yard.
The show guides us through the process, especially focusing our attention on the really bad things they find. The show’s producers love surprises, like, “we were almost finished and then realized all the wiring had to be replaced.” We agonize over the cost; will it be worth it in the end? But we’re hooked. We can’t wait to see the finished product, a beautiful house worth far more than the cost of repairs.
This is a good analogy of what deconstructing Christianity means. It is to take it apart, remove the stuff that has gone wrong, and put it back together in a correct way.
Returning to my Facebook friend, during our conversation I made this statement: “When it comes to defending the ‘faith,’ Christians can be the meanest and most ugly. What about the Christian faith causes that? Why do Christians turn immediately to condemnation? What is the purpose? Is there a fear that the faith will not hold up to scrutiny?”
In other words, one advantage of deconstruction can be removing the anger from Christians who want to proclaim the faith. That anger does not work. It alienates people, turning them off to Jesus. If we can remove the 2,000 years of garbage collected by the church along the way, it will be revival.
“One advantage of deconstruction can be removing the anger from Christians who want to proclaim the faith.”
Deconstruction is not a new thing. When Jesus showed up and began his work, his first message was “repent, the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). We often mistakenly assume that his call to repent meant to stop sinning or at least feel bad about sin. Repentance has nothing to do with sin. The word means to change your thinking. I guess it would be correct to translate Jesus’ message as “change your thinking, the kingdom of God is near.” It was a call to deconstruct the way people thought about God.
This theme was constant throughout Jesus’ time on earth. Many of the metaphors he used expressed this idea of change, of finding a new way to think about God and how we relate to God.
You must be born again
Nicodemus, a man steeped in the Jews’ religion, came to Jesus with a question. It seems that he might have been frightened to ask this question in public, so he came to Jesus “at night.” What he was about to ask would have created serious problems if his peers had overheard. Try it yourself. Approach your pastor next Sunday morning and ask if it’s OK to deconstruct your faith. You probably will get the same kind of reaction that drove Nicodemus into the night.
Nicodemus essentially asked if Jesus was of God. Jesus responded with the familiar words, “unless someone is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus thought Jesus was describing some kind of mystical experience of returning to his mother’s womb. But Jesus was not talking about a magical change. Jesus was saying we have to start over from the beginning. We have to be born again, start from the beginning.
Nicodemus, the man steeped in the Jewish religion, said what many Christians have said, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9). He didn’t understand, so Jesus referred to Nicodemus’ credentials, being a “teacher of Israel,” as the reason he couldn’t understand that Jesus was speaking of heavenly things, and Nicodemus was stuck with earthly thinking.
“Nicodemus wanted to find a way to fit Jesus into his religion, but it wasn’t possible. Jesus said you’ve got to start over.”
Nicodemus wanted to find a way to fit Jesus into his religion, but it wasn’t possible. Jesus said you’ve got to start over.
Have you ever thought about what Christianity would be if the church had taken a new approach? Instead of adopting Judaism and making a few changes, what if the church started over with Jesus? (Interesting thoughts for another day.)
When Jesus told a leader of Judaism that he must be born again, essentially, he told the man to deconstruct his faith. In other words, rethink what you believe and practice. John places this encounter at the beginning of his Gospel. From that point forward, Jesus defined what that new faith would look like.
By the way, Paul got it. He said, “if anyone is in Christ, this person is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). According to Paul, this new creation occurs because God is in the process of reconciling the world to himself (v.19). Perhaps the most remarkable statement Paul makes in this passage is that God does not count our wrongdoings against us. Wow. Is Paul saying this new “religion” is not based on the notion that God is out to punish sinners? That’s a concept Nicodemus never would understand without deconstructing.
New wine into old wineskins
The analogies about this deconstruction continued with Jesus. Listen to this metaphor: “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear results. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins” (Mark 2:21-22).
We all learned in Sunday school that the old wine sacks will split, and the new wine will be lost.
Jesus brought new wine. It was tempting to make it fit into the old wineskins. The new wine is a new understanding of God. The old wineskin is the religion of the Jews. What Jesus had to say could not be understood by trying to make it fit into Judaism. They tried.
The church has tried for 2,000 years. Just one example: Jesus brought the message that God loves all people. The Jews couldn’t make it fit because they believed Jews were specially chosen. Christians couldn’t make it fit either because bad people exist outside of God’s love. All these years later, many Christians essentially believe that God only loves 30% of the world’s population (the number who identify as Christians).
Those who deconstruct are attempting to understand this disconnect. It means to follow the call of Jesus to “rethink.”
You have heard it said …
Five times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to a specific understanding of religion that needed deconstruction. The section begins with Jesus saying, “unless your righteousness far surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
The scribes and Pharisees were the cream of the crop when it came to righteous living. Jesus said they needed to repent of that kind of thinking. Then he got specific.
You’ve been told that if you murder someone, you will have to answer to the court or stand trial. Jesus said murder is not the issue. Instead, are you angry with your brother? If you are, the punishment is not a court mandate but a fiery hell (Matthew 5:22).
Next, Jesus said to rethink adultery (Matthew 5:27). The problem is not the action, but the thought of lust exposes adultery that already has occurred in the heart. It’s better to pluck out an eye.
Then Jesus turns to making false vows, and it’s better not to swear by anything. He also speaks of revenge (Matthew 5:38) and hating enemies (Matthew 5:43). He turned all these upside down and taught his disciples to deconstruct the faith they had been taught.
“You have heard …” but that’s not correct.
“People are questioning if what they always have heard is correct.”
That is what is happening with deconstruction today. People are questioning if what they always have heard is correct. With more than 2,000 years of history, the truth of what Jesus said has been covered with countless traditions and misconceptions. Many of the doctrines and practices that most of us were taught developed years after Jesus, many of them in response to world events.
Other metaphors of Jesus
I mentioned earlier my discussion on a Facebook page devoted to house churches. We were taught that faithful Christians drive to a building on Sunday mornings and gather, sing songs, give an offering, and listen to a sermon. Have you ever given serious consideration to how or why those traditions developed? Think about it. Or, as Jesus would say, “repent” (change your mind) about what it means to be a faithful Christian. They may or may not be valid expressions of faith. Deconstruction means we don’t simply accept something as true because it’s what everyone does.
Jesus used other metaphors of deconstruction, such as tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in three days, losing life to gain life, a grain of wheat dying before growing. He was not afraid of giving serious thought to why we believe certain things. He did not hesitate to change the way Scripture had been interpreted, speak of the emptiness of religious practices and the weaknesses of religious leaders.
I feel confident saying Jesus intended to be more than an asterisk to Judaism. He called us to repent.
Even casual observers realize that Christianity needs deconstruction. The message of love and forgiveness that Jesus proclaimed has become anger and judgment. The hope for unity that Jesus expressed in his prayer for the church has devolved into thousands of denominations and sects. The concept of dying to self has been swallowed up by massive egos filling Christian pulpits. The assignment to take the hope of the gospel to the whole world has been a miserable failure.
Deconstruction seeks to understand what went wrong. The church is a fixer-upper in need of help, or as the meme posted at the outset of the article suggested, revival. Revival is not something we do; it is something that happens to us. In the same manner, deconstruction is not something we do; it happens to us.
Terry Austin says from his first day of life he was taught to love the church. He has lived out that passion in various ways as a pastor, church consultant, author and critic. He is currently a full-time writer and book publisher and actively engaged with house churches.
Deconstruction is not a disease, and trying harder is not the cure | Opinion by Amy Hayes
The deconstruction of American evangelicalism | Opinion by David Gushee
Has conservative evangelicalism reached a dangerous moment of its own making? | Opinion by Susan Shaw